Can a person work and still receive Social Security disability benefits or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits?
The answer is a qualified “yes.”
Social Security wants people to try to go back to work. But, the regulations surrounding keeping your benefits while you try to go back to work make it tricky.
Here is a primer to (hopefully) keep you out of trouble. This is stuff you have to know!
Are you engaged in a Substantial Gainful Activity?
Generally speaking, the test of disability is whether you can perform a substantial gainful activity (SGA)? That is, are your monthly gross earnings (income before taxes and deduction) equal to, or greater than the Substantial Gainful Activity amounts set by Social Security.
In 2015, if you are making at least $1,130 per month, before taxes, your work is a substantial gainful activity. To see the current SGA amount, or SGA amount for other years, click here.
So, if I my gross income is the SGA amount, or more, I have a problem,
But, if my monthly gross income is less than SGA, Social Security will leave me alone.
That is generally correct and it is a good rule of thumb.
However, and this is a big however, this is not the end of the analysis. There are exceptions to allow your benefits to continue if you are earning more than SGA and exceptions that might stop your benefits even if you are earning less than SGA.
If you are receiving Supplemental Security Income, you can earn more than the SGA amount and still receive your SSI benefits. But, that is an article in itself.
If you earn more than the SGA amount:
There are a number of exceptions to allow your benefits to continue even if you earn more than the substantial gainful activity amount. Let’s take a look at them.
Unsuccessful Work Attempt (UWA)
Did the work last for less than 6 months? If yes, the work may qualify as an unsuccessful work attempt or UWA. This is the most common way to continue benefits if you return to work and earn more than the SGA amount.
Simply put, if you work at or above the SGA level for up to six months but have to stop because of your disability, as opposed to being laid off, or quitting, the work may be an unsuccessful work attempt.
There are a number of requirements for an unsuccessful work attempt, read about them here.
Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWE)
If your work is performed at a SGA level, you may be able to reduce the income SSA considers through Impairment Related Work Expenses (IRWEs). Any medically necessary expenses related to your impairment which are necessary to allow you to work may be deducted from your gross income as an IRWE.
For example: if you have a disabling seizure disorder. However, due to a new medication, your seizure disorder is controlled enough to allow you to go back to work. The medications, doctors visits, and blood tests to test the level of medication in you blood stream may all be IRWEs and might reduce your income.
A subsidy is any compensation over the fair value of your work. This often happens if you work for a family member or if you work through an agency like Goodwill.
If you are paid for a 40 hour week but you only work 25 hours, you have a 15 hour subsidy. Another possibility is if the value of your work is $8.00 an hour, but you are paid $10.00 an hour (a $2.00 an hour subsidy).
If you subtract the subsidy, and your gross income is below the SGA amount, you might still be able to keep your Social Security benefits. Click for more information about subsidies.
Trial Work Period
If you are receiving Disability Insurance (not SSI), Social Security allows you a Trial Work Period: you can go back to work, and earn even more than the SGA amount, and still be considered disabled, for 9 months.
Click for more information about Trial Work Periods.
Even if you earn LESS THAN the SGA amount watch out!
Any work may create the impression that an individual is not really disabled. That is the greatest risk of going back to work.
I have heard too many stories of Social Security stopping benefits and even claiming an overpayment, because they thought a person who had gone back to work was never disabled in the first place, or that their disability stopped months or years ago.
Performing a job at a non-SGA level, may suggest the ability to perform other work at a SGA level.
you could do a different job at a SGA amount. Therefore, you are not disabled and your benefits should stop.
An extreme example of this is working a part time construction or labor job.
- You may be limited to only being able to do this work part-time.
- Your earnings may be less than the SGA amount.
- BUT, if you can do part-time construction, doesn’t that mean you may be able to do full time (SGA) work at an easier job, for example as an information clerk.
Lets get real here: if there is a less demanding full time SGA job that you can perform, your disability benefits will be questioned sooner or later and you may be assessed an overpayment.
Are you structuring your work to be less than the SGA amount?
If you are keeping your hours below a certain amount, not for a medical reason, but just to earn less than the SGA amount, you are committing fraud.
Your benefits will probably be stopped, and you are looking at an overpayment and will probably have to repay Social Security. But things, can get much worse: Social Security may also refer your case to the Attorney Generals office for federal prosecution.
Do not game the system. It is not worth it.